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confession of a still more crafty mistress, thai we are to look, as the signs and tokens of a great people's destiny.
But if the memorialist was necessarily narrow in his range, he at all events contrived to give you some idea of the region he described. Not so the historian. While the one, impressed with the greatness of his subject, prosaically repeated the chit-chat of the royal nursery, pompously perorated upon the "chaise percée" of a king; the other, passing in contemptuous silence over the character, the customs, the arts of the people he described, expended the fire of his genius in a tremendous outpouring of battles, sieges, victories, defeats, murders, and invasions. Quick over your mind rushed a deluge of dates and deaths; and the people who could count the greatest number of obscure names upon their fingers, and cite an insignificant fact with the nicest accuracy, were deemed, by all reputed judges, the most accomplished possessors of historical lore.
Voltaire rescued history from Daniel and Griffet. The “ Essai sur les Meurs,” in its marvellous combination of wit, research, and philosophy, is, perhaps, one of the most astonishing evidences on record of the power of the human mind; but, wonderful as a testimony of intelligence, it is more than imperfect as a history. It wants the power, without which all history is lifeless--it wants the power which transports you to distant regions and to distant times, and which brings the dim face of weird antiquity plain and palpably before
you ; it wants the power which makes you look upon the things and mingle with the men that are described. What you see in Voltaire's history is Voltaire. His cynical, intelligent, and thoughtful face comes back to you from every page, as so many refractions of the same image from a broken mirror. You never get beyond the philosopher's study. Like Don Quixote in the duke's castle, you pass through every atmosphere without stirring from the same place. It is the shrewd old gentleman of the eighteenth century talking to you most sagaciously about a number of things which he has got carefully under lock and key, and will never let you get a glimpse of.
I forget who it is who says, that what is most visible in the history of every time is the time of the historian writing; this, which is true of all the historians of the Voltairian school, is especially true of Voltaire. He looks at every thing, and argues upon every thing, with the eyes and with the feelings not merely of his own age, but of his own country and his own clique.
We know that Herodotus relates of the Babylonian ladies, that they were all obliged, once at least in their lives, to prostitute themselves to strangers in the temple of Milita, or Venus. “Can any one,” cries Voltaire, “ believe in such a story? Is it likely—is it possible that such a custom should exist among a people in any state' of refinement ?—What is not natural is never true.” “ Now,” says Grimm, “it would be very difficult to say what is natural; and if we were to strike out from history every thing that seemed unnatural to us, there would only remain the chronicle of our own times.” Did Grimm say the truth? Certainly, human sucrifices in any state of society are not very natural. Suicide, which was a fashion among one of the most sensible people in the world, was one of the most unnatural fashions that can well be imagined. It is not very long ago that it was the fashion in England for all young ladies to wear pads, in order to make them appear with child ; which, among a people who set the highest value on female chastity, was also very unnatural, surely. The law of Babylon was at least as natural as the vow of celibacy ; nor are we to suppose that, if the Babylonish ladies were refined, their notions of refinement must necessarily have resembled those of the Parisians. But the best part of the story is, that not above half a century after Voltaire wrote, a person appeared in France, actually in France, who preached nearly the same doctrines in the Chaussée d’Antin that, Herodotus says, were followed in Babylon. Nay, there was even a moment of doubt as VOL. II.-G
to whether the father of this creed was not a true prophet; many have even still a faith in his success; so ihat, after all, what the Babylonian ladies practised as a solemn ceremony, the French ladies are not induced to shudder at from social usage. A man who says, “what is not natural cannot be true," and who looks at nature through the prism of his own epoch, cannot be a good historian ; and Voltaire, with the industry which Gibbon acknowledged, and the genius which no one disputes, was not a good historian.
But the chief portion of that public for which Vol taire wrote was a knot of philosophers, who imagined the time in which they lived a golden climax in civilization ; who really thought they could measure all things past, present, and to come, by the ideal standard they had set up in their own minds; who looked back to history, not to form their opinions, but to illustrate their doctrines, and who, when the facts which they read clashed with the theories they believed, denounced the facts to cherish the theories. These men had no idea of a virtue that was different from their virtue; of the power and the force of a genius which was not cast in the mould of their own minds. They were at once too speculative to be struck by a picture, and too proud to think that the darker ages were worth portraying; all they wished for were reasonings similar to their own—the description of other times, which did not take them from theirs ;—and the writer who pleased them most, was the one who took a lesson from the artist, and drew Hercules in the costume of Louis XIV. Such were the men who formed the chief part of that public for which Voltaire wrote; and to these men were joined others equally cold and equally fastidious. Courtiers, whose ideas were in rows, stiff and trim like the trees at Versailles; who were easily shocked, who could not be astonished, who liked to fancy they were being instructed, and who only wished to be amused. The popular writer of the day mirrored forth the taste of the popular critics of the day, and wit and dissertation were the combined materials to please the two classes of those critics.
But when a new school of history arose, it drew more especially from the stores which its predecessors had cautiously neglected.
“Time," said the Encyclopedists,* " is too precious, and the space of history too immense, to give the reader ridiculous fables and absurd theories of ignorant men. -“ Without crediting the fables of ancient writers,” says M. Michaud, “I have not disdained to make use of them for what these writers said their contemporaries believed ; and in so much they show the manners, and the ideas, and the knowledge which prevailed at the period they describe.”! Here then are the two schools in direct opposition. The first brought a bastard kind of antiquity into your parlour; the second would carry you back into antiquity itself. Instead of reasoning upon the acts of your ancestors, the modern historian would show you those ancestors themselves, clad in the panoply, the passions, and the prejudices of olden time. The writer of the “ Crusades” does not coldly tell you that the religious adventurers, who poured into Palestine, were a set of superstitious soldiers cased in mail. No: you see the sun shine on their glittering harness ; you hear them shouting, “ Dieu le veut," as they rush to battle. Lo! are the warlike fanatics marching upon Jerusalem ! They have fasted for three days, and, sallying forth, at length they walk, their weapons in their hands, but their feet bare, and their heads uncovered. Thus they walk three times round the sacred city; and before them march their priests, robed in white, and carrying the images of saints, and singing psalms; and the banners are unfurled, and loud sounds the timbrel and the trumpet; for thus was it that the Israelites had thrice made the tour of Jericho, the walls of which crumbled to pieces at the sound of the warlike music."*
* Art. “Histoire.” First edit. Encyclopedia. + Michaud's “ Exposition de l'Histoire des Croisades." # Michaud. vol. i. p. 412. Hist. des Croisades.
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“ I have endeavoured,” says M. de Barante,* restore to history the charm of the romance, which the romance had, in fact, borrowed from history ;" and so in a work, a model of its kind, this modern historian continually cites the old chronicles, and borrows himself something of their simple, and perhaps barbarous style of narrative, telling you things in the tone, and with the colouring of a contemporary. The erudition which makes most works dry, makes his delightful.f You see Charles the Bold, his long black hair floating in the wind, his proud lip trembling, and his swart face pale with passion. You know the very name of his coal-black charger; and before him are the Swiss on their knees, and the heavens clearing at their prayer; and there you read how the Burgundians beseeched their prince to remember “ his poor people," and how the clergy told him that he was defeated because he taxed the church. The age speaks to you in its own language, and expresses its own ideas. You make acquaintance with its personages, as they existed in the flesh and blood; you learn its manners without knowing you have been taught them. The first author of the school that I read was M. Thierry, and I yet remember the pleasure I felt at the following simple, but, I think, very admirable passage, in that part of his history which relates to the Norman descent.
- And now there arrived from Rome the consecrated flag, and the bull which authorized the descent upon England. The eagerness increased. Every one contributed to the enterprise as best he could ; and even mothers sent their favourite children to enlist for the sake of their souls. William published his warban in the countries adjacent: he offered a large sum,
* Histoire du Duc de Burgoine : Preface.
+ M. de Barante is called a copyist ; and so he is a copyist of the old writers, from whom he has taken his materials. But if an historian has any merit in infusing into you the spirit of the times whose actions he is narrating, to copy the writers of those times is a necessity, and not a fault.